With his retirement close at hand, Moses Massey recently took a walk down Memory Lane.
The Superior Court judge thumbed through journals he started in 1968 and has kept up daily for about 30 years.
He found one from 1994, just his third day on the bench.
“Being a judge is fun!” he had written.
The sentiment has continued be true for Massey for 22 years, and will likely be so even after his Dec. 31 retirement as senior resident superior court judge in Stokes and Surry counties.
“I just love it,” he said. “If we human beings lived to be 1,100 years old I would gladly be a Superior Court judge for at least 1,000 of those years. I love it that much. But we don’t, so it’s time for me to spend more time with my children and grandchildren and especially my wife.”
An enthusiastic dedication to both work and home seems to characterize Massey, who is known for whistling in the courthouse hallway and adjourning court with a trademark cowboy yell.
The judge was born Aaron Clare Massey in the former Mount Airy hospital located on Cherry Street, which happens to be across the street from where he now lives.
“It’s as far as I’ve gotten,” he likes to tell people, but the journey across the street has involved many side roads.
As for the Moses part, that was a nickname that stuck, and he eventually had his name legally changed.
Raised in Lowgap, his Surry County upbringing was interrupted by a move to California in 1959, when Massey was in the fifth grade.
His father operated bulldozing equipment, and when a recession hit or the ground was frozen, work slowed down.
“We went hungry sometimes,” Massey said, recalling a period of about a week when the family of seven ate nothing but pancakes.
Across the country, Massey’s father found employment with a utility company, while Massey was sent to school on, literally, a 60-mile bus route.
The group returned to Surry County after about five years and the family’s mortgage had been paid off.
“Everything seemed smaller,” upon his return, Massey said.
Still, the judge describes his early childhood in Lowgap as an “Eden-like environment” in a different time, where a family could leave their fully-furnished home unlocked for five years and return to find it untouched.
Massey entered the 10th grade in North Surry High School, from where he would graduate.
It was also where he met one of his most significant influences, Sarah McGee, his English teacher and debate coach.
“She had a great impact on me,” Massey said. “I’d always been a reader; I’d read the cereal box when we ate breakfast. She really fed that tremendously.”
McGee opened her home to her debate team.
“She didn’t get a penny for that,” Massey noted, “that was just something she did.”
Massey said despite having many wonderful teachers in college and law school, “none had quite the impact as Mrs. McGee.”
One example that still stands out is her counseling when Massey was considering joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon missionaries had approached the Massey family in California, and were treated kindly by Massey’s father.
“He said, ‘We’ll listen to you, but we can’t now,’” Massey recalled.
Approached again in Lowgap as a busy senior in high school, the judge somewhat echoed his father.
“I’ll listen to you,” he told the church’s representatives, “but you’ll never make a Mormon out of me.”
Despite that early dismissal, Massey was drawn toward the church.
However, he was cautioned against joining by most authority figures.
“It’s nothing but a cult,” he was told. “You have such a bright future, and you are ruining it.”
Massey eventually asked McGee’s opinion.
“Her advice to me was you do what your heart says,” he recalled. “That made a huge difference in my making that decision.”
After graduation, Massey left for Provo, Utah, to attend the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University.
“I don’t remember Daddy ever giving me a dollar to go to college,” he said. “He worked hard all the time; he didn’t have any extra.”
Massey worked as a janitor for the university to help pay tuition.
He had no car to drive that first year, and so would awake at 3 a.m. to walk a little more than a mile to school, where he would work from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. then attend class all day.
At the end of his second year in college, Massey left for another adventure, a standard two-year missionary trip (his went to Mexico), returning to BYU in 1971.
At some point around that time he started dating Susan Goad, the daughter of Mount Airy fast-food pioneer Ray Goad.
Over three consecutive days in 1973, the two were married, Massey graduated from college and he received an ROTC commission.
After a summer spent in Mount Airy, Massey and his wife moved to Chapel Hill for the future judge to attend law school at the University of North Carolina.
When he went to register that fall, he was told he had sent back a postcard turning down his acceptance.
“I was breathless,” he said, realizing he had accidentally accepted a spot in a different school. Fortunately, the dean let him in anyway.
“Those were wonderful years,” he said. “We were going to be this yuppie couple and not have children until after law school,” but on May 7, Tiffany, the first of the couple’s four children, was born.
“I was literally studying for finals in the delivery room,” Massey recalled. “It’s a wonder I made it through the first year.”
He made it through every year, graduating in 1976 and returning with Susan to start a life in Mount Airy.
Massey went to work for his father-in-law when first starting out, which primarily entailed handling leases for Goad’s Kingburger empire.
After about five years he joined up with Mount Airy attorney V. Talmage Hiatt, practicing “country law” such as estate work.
Occasionally, Massey would fill in as an Assistant District Attorney on a per-diam basis.
“I just loved it so much I decided I wanted to be in the courtroom everyday,” he said, and eventually went to work full-time as a prosecutor.
He ran for district court judge with the intention of unseating a judge whom Massey, and others, believed pre-tried cases.
Though he lost that first election in the primary, the ethically challenged judge was ousted in the general election.
When a vacancy arose in 1994, and Massey was appointed to fill the seat.
He won election to the seat in the fall of that year.
He especially loved working in Juvenile Court, where, “once in a while you did some good for a young person,” he said.
In adult court, he enjoyed presiding over fun cases in addition to more serious ones.
“You met some real characters and situations,” he said.
About 16 years ago, Massey ascended to the Superior Court bench.
“I was interested in becoming a Superior Court judge because of the challenges of handling more complex civil cases and more serious criminal offenses,” he said.
One of his first major civil cases did make him laugh, however.
A civil rights group had sued officials in a nearby county challenging their intention of posting a copy of the 10 Commandments in the courthouse.
He ruled the case moot, and the plaintiffs conceded as much, because the officials ended up hanging copies of other historical documents.
Still, the newspaper headline read, “Moses saves the 10 Commandments,” which still makes Massey chuckle.
Leaving a legacy
Massey’s last term of Superior Court was bookended by ceremonies recognizing the judge’s contribution to the community, one planned and one a surprise.
The courtroom was packed both times, and speakers noted many ways in which Massey was known and respected.
Massey’s son, Aaron, recalled how strangers would pull his father aside and thank him for how he treated their loved ones, even if they had wound up in jail.
“People can come into the courtroom argumentative,” Massey reflected. “You can sense they’re ready to lash out. They’re angry. Just by being calm and respectful you can deflate that hot-air balloon. It’s amazing how people respond to being treated with respect.”
The phrase “err on the side of helping people,” was one he’s kept close at hand.
“If I have any regrets, I don’t want them to be I punished someone more than they should have been,” he said.
The judge also doesn’t want to regret not retiring when he has the chance to spend time with his family.
“Susan has beee the most supportive best friend/partner ever,” he said, explaining he and his wife walk together for 60 minutes every morning.
Those walks form the foundation of his day and the couple’s relationship.
Despite his love of the courtroom, the traveling lifestyle of the Superior Court judge and the weight of the cases unfolding in court do take their toll.
Massey mentioned two steps leading into his kitchen from the garage. Arriving home at nights, “sometimes I feel like I can’t make those two steps,” he said, but what’s inside restores him.
He quoted from a Stephen Chalmers poem to explain: Out of the dreariness, Into its cheeriness, Come we in weariness, Home.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.